Neil Humphreys: Conte's touch has transformed Italy
From the shadows, Conte has turned Italy into genuine dark horses
(Emanuele Giaccherini 32, Graziano Pelle 90+2)
IN a sedate corner of the Stamford Bridge boardroom, grown men in sombre suits are dancing.
And if they're not, then they darn well should be.
Chelsea have hired a tactical genius, the sly shaman of team selections.
Antonio Conte has emerged from Euro 2016's long shadow to unexpectedly steal the spotlight, the Dark Knight leading the dark horses.
Italy could actually win this thing.
Against every ounce of logic, a team with the cast of Cocoon in defence, a Sunderland reject in midfield and a pair of pensioners up front are suddenly, inexplicably, ludicrously, launching a credible challenge for the trophy.
This was not supposed to happen. This could not happen.
The Italians who waddled out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with their tails between their legs, falling at the group stage, had seemingly regressed further.
Andrea Pirlo was gone, Mario Balotelli had gone AWOL and the grumpy old men in front of 38-year-old Gianluigi Buffon were two years closer to retirement.
Those brash Belgians, a fleet-footed, gleaming bunch of shiny superstars, with beguiling smiles and body on billboards, cola commercials and computer games everywhere, only had to turn up, surely, to beat the Uncles XI shaming the name of the Azzurri.
But no one counted on Conte.
Standing on the touchline in the darkest of suits, his eyes glowering through narrow slits, he's more Lord Voldemort than vaudeville clown, a cold, chilling presence.
The 46-year-old belongs in a high-backed chair, stroking a cat and torturing 007 while plotting world domination. Instead, he toasted Belgian waffles and pondered Euro 2016 domination.
Conte's chameleonic qualities earned him the Chelsea job. His reputation as an inventive tactical tinkerer was established long ago.
The flexibility in his line-ups is a hallmark of a career that yielded three Serie A titles in a row at Juventus.
The 3-5-2 that once turned Turin into a fortress put in an appearance again yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Every team in France is sent out with a specific formation and collective and individual responsibilities. But no other team have yet matched Italy's extraordinary attention to detail and unbreakable powers of concentration.
Their systematic destruction of an obviously superior team was orchestrated in the dugout and delivered on the pitch with a unrivalled level of intelligence and spirited defiance.
Italy's victory is a PowerPoint presentation waiting to happen, a future course module for budding coaches. More than that, the triumph was an exhibition of thrilling defensive football.
It was the most Italian of performances. It was also the least Italian of performances, a stubborn, clinical and occasionally cynical approach that was never dull, slow or nasty.
Conte has made the Azzurri far greater than the sum of their parts, highlighting and humiliating Belgium's clear lack of cohesion in the process.
In size, stature and running style, Emanuele Giaccherini's hustling and scampering resembled Gennaro Gattuso's buzzing industry. Giaccherini was everywhere. He was also a Sunderland reject a year ago.
Giaccherini is 31. His next-door neighbour, Daniele de Rossi, will be 33 next month. The front two of Eder and Graziano Pelle have a combined age of 60. The combined ages of the back three almost reach three figures.
Conte makes the best of a bad hand, utilising the obvious club combination at his disposal.
The experience of Juventus' quartet of Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli allowed Italy's wing-backs to effectively turn central midfield into a wall of five, which neutered Belgium's creativity.
The current complexion of Euro 2016 suits Conte's style. Italy's obdurate back three suggested that collecting clean sheets was as easy as collecting seashells when the tide goes out.
Most of all, they have Conte. His gameplan was faultless and near flawless in its execution, providing Euro 2016 with its best game and a tactical masterclass.
In a single fixture, the Azzurri went from the worst Italian side in a generation to outside contenders.
They might be celebrating in Chelsea. But the party's only just starting in Italy.
3 things Belgium must fix
Belgium's golden generation of household names were expected to show up and take the Italians to school yesterday morning (Singapore time). But they were humbled and their manager was humiliated, with the defeat revealing Marc Wilmots' glaring tactical blunders. NEIL HUMPHREYS looks at what the Belgians must fix when they face the Republic of Ireland.
1 Forget whining, work on tactics, Wilmots.
The longer the game progressed against Italy, the more Belgium's manager looked like Harry Redknapp in his incorrigible prime.
Both Tottenham and West Ham footballers have spoken of Redknapp's tactical limitations and his overriding belief that a group of talented artists can be left to paint their own canvases.
Wilmots (below) did pretty much the same against Italy. When it became clear that Antonio Conte's 3-5-2 gave Italy an extra man in midfield, usually Matteo Darmian, and denied Marouane Fellaini any time to link play,
Wilmots did nothing. When the Belgians needed leadership and direction in the dugout, none was forthcoming. Wilmots' deluded post-match comments, claiming that Italy did not play football, even sounded Redknapp-esque.
For all their attacking intent, the young Belgians need an organised template to complement their talent against the industrious Irish.
2 No leaders, no direction.
There's a fundamental flaw in the Belgium camp, one that carries over from the World Cup.
Intriguingly, despite their laudable youth development programme, now being replicated in Singapore, Belgium didn't build enough leaders or vocal organisers.
Without Vincent Kompany, the absence of obvious lieutenants on the pitch contributed to a lack of focus and direction.
The Italians had Gianluigi Buffon, the outstanding Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele de Rossi clearly marshalling the passages of play and encouraging those around them.
Eden Hazard (right, in red) tried, but he's no Kompany. Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne are all blessed with the physique and form to intimidate opponents, but were conspicuous by their silence.
It really was a tale of mice and men against Italy. The Irish will feel they have nothing to fear.
3 Bring back the other Lukaku, or drop this one.
Everton fans know there are two Lukakus.
There is the belligerent, bulldozing hulking mass of muscle, perfectly calibrated to hold off defenders and bludgeon balls into the bottom corner with unerring accuracy.
And there's the Lukaku (below) who showed up yesterday, scared of his own shadow and blessed with the first touch of an elephant.
The ball often spun away from his instep like an uncoiled spring. He turned defenders as if roller-skating on marbles. This faulty Lukaku model doesn't score. If he turns up again in training in the coming days, Divock Origi should replace him.